Unlocking Great Tone With Fuzz Pedals
Fuzz pedals can be a great mystery for many guitarists. We’ve heard all the complaints time and again.
“It sounds way too muddy!”
“I just can’t get this thing dialed in for good tone.”
“This pedal gets drowned out with a band.”
“Why don’t I sound like Hendrix!?”
Well, you’re not going to sound like Hendrix… at least not exactly. Hendrix’s tone had a lot to do with his unique guitar and gear setup but even more to do with his magic fingers.
By the way, Hendrix used a Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face pedal which you can still buy. But he stacked it with various other pedals and overdriven amps. If you want a little bit more self-sustaining fuzz pedal for similar Hendrix tones, try the Dunlop FFM2 Germanium Fuzz Face Mini.
Dunlop also developed a Jimi Hendrix Fuzz Face that cranks out some pretty authentic tones when stacked with the right amp like a Marshall JTM45.
But we aren’t here to talk about sounding like Hendrix. We are here to talk about getting your own great tone from your fuzz pedal. So before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s start with some basics of fuzz pedals.
What is a fuzz pedal?
The inspiration for fuzz actually comes from broken amplifiers which caught on with certain genres. Some artists even went so far as to slash their speakers with razor blades to achieve the sound. So guitarists started trying to find ways to emulate the broken amp without actually breaking their amps.
Fuzz pedals are fairly simple devices. Unlike distortion or overdrive pedals you won’t find a lot of complex diodes built into these stomp boxes, but rather more simplistic transistors that do the heavy lifting. These transistors are incredibly violent when it comes to distorting a signal. Normal sound waves are rounded at peaks and valleys, making for a mostly smooth and stable output.
A fuzz pedal employs a principle known as hard clipping. Hard clipping limits the maximum amplitude of a signal. In a fuzz pedal, a transistor is pushed to a maximum amplitude and at this amplitude, the transistor saturates and cannot output a signal above a specific level, so the input signal is clipped.
The diagram below displays the difference between various signals through an amplifier. The blue wavelength representing a clean signal, the yellow soft clipping representing most standard distortion pedals, and the red line representing the hard clipping of a fuzz pedal.
This slicing of the sound waves produces a very harsh, choppy sound from the amplifier. The manipulation of the sound wave also adds new harmonics into the signal, which can sound unnatural if too many notes are played in conjunction. This is why complex chords are usually avoided when playing with heavy distortion and power chords become the norm which only play the root and 5th.
Now, the basic architecture of a fuzz pedal relies on transistors to perform this hard clipping. However, that doesn’t mean all fuzz pedals are built the same. There are literally millions of combinations that these transistors can be aligned together, not to mention the fact that the number of transistors in a fuzz pedal can vary.
The diagram below is the circuit structure for a basic fuzz pedal. You will see that as the signal passes through the circuit, it hits transistors which are the source of gain.
Why have we spent so much time talking about transistors? Well because different types of transistors create different guitar tone. We are now entering the fierce debate of silicon vs germanium pedals.
Now if you crack that pedal open, it looks surprisingly a lot less complex than you might think.
What’s the difference between silicon and germanium fuzz pedals?
Silicon transistors make a harsh, metallic sound. Germanium transistors have a smoother, rounded sound with less treble and high end brightness. Germaniums were used in the late sixties on the original Fuzz Face pedal while silicon fuzz pedals were developed later.
Germanium fuzz pedals are aptly named because they use germanium transistors. Germanium is a semiconducting material which means that sometimes it will conduct a current, and sometimes it will not. It all depends on voltage levels and movement of electrons. Germanium transistors were notoriously unstable. They could be easily effected by variations in temperature and could at times cease to conduct any signal for seemingly unknown reasons.
Check out germanium fuzz pedals on Amazon. You will find a whole lot of choices at a range of price levels.
Germanium transistors were later replaced with silicon transistors as manufacturers realized that this material was more stable and easier to produce at mass scale without variation between individual units. Silicon transistors contain less parasitics that eat the signal and they also operate at higher frequencies meaning more treble comes through in the final output. Silicon transistors also have higher gain than germaniums which creates a different fuzz effect.
Check out silicon fuzz pedals on Amazon.
Today, there are tons of both silicon and germanium fuzz face pedals. Companies like Jim Dunlop even offer the same fuzz pedal (Fuzz Face) in both germanium and silicon circuitry. If you are looking to get a good idea of the difference in sound between germanium and silicon, checkout the video from Perky’s Guide To on fuzz pedals. Obviously, the results will be slightly different for every player and rig, but it gives you a good sense of how different the two sound.
Germanium vs Silicon Fuzz Pedals Comparison Chart
|Germanium Fuzz||Silicon Fuzz|
|Softer, less harsh tone|
More high-end clarity with guitar
volume rolled back
Thinner on the low-end at high
gain – more vintage sounding
More susceptible to temperature
fluctuations and changes in external elements
Usually a bit less “fuzzy” sound
More susceptible to poor sound due to transistor mismatching
Higher price tag
Has darker tone at lower gain level
Thicker low end sound
Clean up nicely but less clarity
with guitar volume rolled back
More low-end at high gain with
more robust tone
Less susceptible to temperature
variations and external elements
Transistors have higher tolerance
providing more consistent sound
Lower price tag
Pairing the right guitar with fuzz pedals
First of all, there is no “right” answer to which guitar or pickup is the best to use with a fuzz pedal. If you like the sound that a particular combination gives you, then go for it. However, if you are looking for some specific tones, you may want to be aware of how pickups will influence the sound with fuzz.
You may find that the majority of guitarists who use fuzz pedals are running something like a stratocaster through it. This has almost everything to do with the fact that many strats have low output, single coil pickups. Underwound, low output pickups manage to dampen the signal to a degree where the pedal doesn’t begin to interfere with itself and muddy up the signal. Humbuckers generally have a massive amount of output and with the high output of the fuzz pedal, the sound tends to get over-saturated and has very little clarity. Having said that, some musicians do use humbuckers with fuzz – Jeff Beck Group’s Truth, Mick Ronson on Ziggy Stardust. In more recent years, you’ve got the White Stripes (single coil that looks like a humbucker), and of course Smashing Pumpkins (Siamese Dream featured Fender strats with Blue/Silver/Red Lace Sensor single coil pickups, as well as Les Pauls with Humbuckers).
The brighter pickups are easier to combine with fuzz pedals because they don’t interfere with the gain so much. While there will be more ambient noise from single coils and less definition on single notes, they avoid the muddiness that comes with overloaded signals. Single coils tend to have more treble and dynamics, with or without fuzz. So it makes sense that adding a pedal that represses some of that dynamic makes for a more evened out signal than using a pickup that has less.
You can see the difference in frequency output between humbuckers and single coils in the graph below. As fuzz pedals are relatively low impedance, much of this signal gets driven through the pedal and that excessive gain causes muddier sound.
Guitar Volume for Tone
When using a fuzz pedal, the volume control on your guitar might be the most important knob on your rig. Adjusting this will completely change the tone and sound you get from a fuzz pedal.
The volume knob, or pot, is simply a resistor that regulates the frequency output of the guitar signal. Think of it as brakes on a car: when you don’t touch the brake, there is no impedance to your car’s progression (aside from the friction on the ground and wind resistance). As you apply the brake, there is more resistance working against your engine and speed of the car. Same thing with the volume pot, when it’s at 10 you applying no resistance to the frequency signal, and as you roll it back, you apply more resistance to the signal and slowly impede the high end frequency.
Here’s a basic chart showing what happens to the frequency spectrum of a plucked string as the tone knob is adjusted.
So anyway what does all this mean for your tone? Well, when you have your volume pot fully open, 100% of the frequency is being pumped into your pedal. Remember that fuzz pedals add a lot of harmonics, so more frequencies with more harmonics and hard clipping makes for an all-out balls-to-wall sound. Think Foxy Lady or In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. But when you start to roll back the volume, the high frequencies begin to dissipate and you are left with a very compelling glassy, cleanish tone. Hendrix was very well-known for using his fuzz pedal with his guitar volume rolled back, even saying at one point that he preferred this “clean tone” of the fuzz pedal over his amp’s pure clean tone. When you demo your next fuzz pedal, play around with the guitar volume a lot and see how everything reacts to it. You can achieve a huge amount tone variations strictly by adjusting it.
Amp Settings with Fuzz Pedals
There is an endless debate about using a fuzz pedal with a solid state vs a tube/valve amp. Many guitarists claim that they can get great results from either, while other guitarists claim that fuzz pedals (and distortion/OD pedal in general) only sound good through a tube amp. This also seems to be a case by case basis, as various types of ss and tube amps produce very different sounds with pedals.
For good tone with a fuzz pedal, look for an amp with high headroom to keep the fuzz from mudding itself. Some good amps with fuzz pedals are:
To make sure we are on the same page here, we need to do a quick recap of the difference between distortion, overdrive, and fuzz pedals.
Overdrive pedals are designed to increase the signal output of the guitar through the amplifier to the extend that the amplifier begins to break up. Picking harder on the guitar will increase the break up of the output. However, it is not introducing a new signal to the chain, it’s simply increasing the input of the current one. As you drive tubes harder, you get more output and more natural break up from your amp. This is why many people love to add OD pedals to a tube amp – it boosts the sound of the amplifier itself.
Distortion pedals introduce an artificial signal into the chain and do not rely on the natural overdrive of the amplifier. The harder you play, the break up and distortion level will remain consistent.
Now where does fuzz fit into this? Fuzz is essentially an extreme version of a distortion pedal that clips the signal in a more severe way. However, again, many guitarists disagree on whether these work well through solid state amps.
Fuzz pedals can be very effective on their own. However, sending them through an amplifier that already has the volume cranked to the point of breakup, or some gain on the channel can make them really shine. The combination of stacking that gain together makes for a very powerful dynamic.
Check out the video from Wampler pedals on how this changes your tone.
We’ve gone through a whole lot of information about how fuzz pedals work and interact with different gear. There is always personal preference for how to use a fuzz pedal, but if you are looking for classic tones and trying to sound like some of the greats, follow these guidelines:
- Spend plenty of time playing around with different fuzz pedals and recognize the differences you hear between germanium and silicon versions. Remember that every fuzz pedal is wired with different transistors which can make huge differences in sound.
- For a little more clarity in your tone, run single coil pickups through your fuzz pedal. Humbuckers tend to muddy up the tone significantly.
- Your choice of amplifiers will make a big difference. But, for a more dynamic sound, roll up the gain on your amp and then stack your fuzz pedal with it.
- Make use of your guitar’s volume pot! The volume pot provides a huge range of tones when using fuzz pedal.
That’s it! Thanks for stopping by and go make some music!